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Fuller, Melville Weston

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Birth: February 11, 1833, Augusta, Maine.

Education: Bowdoin College, A.B., 1853; studied at Harvard Law School and read law, 1853–1855.

Official Positions: Member, Illinois House of Representatives, 1863–1864; member, Venezuela-British Guiana Border Commission, 1899; member, Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, 1900–1910.

Supreme Court Service: Nominated chief justice by President Grover Cleveland, May 2, 1888, to replace Morrison R. Waite, who had died; confirmed by the Senate, July 20, 1888, by a 41–20 vote; took judicial oath October 8, 1888; served until July 4, 1910; replaced as chief justice by Edward D. White, nominated by President William Howard Taft.

Death: July 4, 1910, Sorrento, Maine.

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Melville Weston Fuller
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Melville Weston Fuller

Melville Fuller spent his childhood in Augusta, Maine, and entered Bowdoin College in September 1849 at age sixteen. He was active in a debating society and pursued his strong interest in literature. Graduating in 1853, Fuller promptly began his legal studies. As was then common practice, he received most of his legal training by apprenticeship. In 1854 Fuller entered Harvard Law School, where he attended lectures for six months. Admitted to the Maine bar the next year, Fuller moved back to Augusta and began to practice law with an uncle. Leaving behind his advantageous family contacts in Augusta, Fuller abruptly decided to move to Chicago in 1856. Like many New Englanders of his generation, Fuller felt that Chicago, which was emerging as the commercial center of the Midwest, offered attractive business and professional opportunities.

In Chicago, Fuller formed a series of short-lived partnerships with other attorneys. Although he appeared regularly in court and earned recognition as a skillful appellate advocate, he found it difficult to establish a financially successful law practice. He became active in Democratic Party politics and was a supporter of Stephen A. Douglas, which put him in an awkward political position when the Civil War began. Fuller was loyal to the Union and favored military action to crush secession. At the same time, he opposed abolitionism and was unhappy about the Lincoln administration's conduct of war. Fuller did not serve in the military. Instead, he was elected to the Illinois Constitutional Convention of 1862 and served in the Illinois House of Representatives during the 1863 legislative session. He supported a proposed state constitutional amendment to deny blacks the right to vote, denounced the Emancipation Proclamation, and assailed Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus. Despite this controversial political record, Fuller excelled in establishing harmonious personal relations with persons of diverse legal and political views. He had a genial nature, with an urbane sense of humor and unfailing courtesy.

Fuller's professional status was substantially enhanced by each of his two marriages. He inherited land in Chicago from his first wife, Calista Reynolds, who died after six years of marriage. In May 1866 Fuller married Mary Ellen Coolbaugh. Her father was a wealthy banker and president of the Union National Bank, the largest financial institution in Chicago. Aided by his father-in-law's contacts, Fuller developed a large and successful practice focused on real estate and corporate law. He began to represent the Union National Bank and frequently appeared on behalf of other Illinois banks. In addition, Fuller defended railroad companies in personal injury litigation arising out of railroad accidents. But, in addition to appearing in behalf of Chicago's business elite, he also served as counsel for municipal bodies such as the South Park commissioners. Similarly, he handled various legal matters for the city of Chicago, including the famous case involving ownership of lakefront land along Lake Michigan, State of Illinois v. Illinois Central Railroad Co. (1888).

In time, Fuller became one of the busiest attorneys in Chicago, trying approximately 2,500 cases during his career. He was also a skillful appellate advocate; in 1872 he argued his first of many cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Before his appointment to the bench, Fuller had a wide experience with many diverse fields of law. He secured professional recognition as well as financial success and was elected president of the Illinois State Bar Association in 1886.

The death of Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite in March 1888 opened the door for Fuller's surprise appointment to the nation's top judicial post. After considering other individuals, President Grover Cleveland, the first Democrat in that office since the Civil War, selected Fuller. The nominee had been an enthusiastic backer of the Cleveland administration, and the president had consulted him concerning the distribution of political patronage in Illinois. Indeed, Cleveland had earlier asked Fuller to accept the post of solicitor general, which he declined. With his strong ties to Chicago, Fuller was reluctant to accept the nomination to the Court, but he acquiesced to the president's wishes. The Republican-controlled Judiciary Committee delayed action on Fuller's nomination for months hoping to prevent a confirmation vote until after the upcoming presidential election. In July 1888, however, after a brief debate that centered on Fuller's conduct during the Civil War, the Senate confirmed the appointment, 41–20.

By any standard, Fuller was eminently successful as a judicial administrator. His initial task was to exert leadership over his colleagues. A likable man, Fuller soon succeeded in establishing warm personal relations and proved a masterful social leader of the Court. Despite sharp divisions in some important cases and inevitable personality conflicts, Fuller's skills as a mediator prevented destructive personal feuds. As part of his effort to foster harmonious working relations, Fuller introduced the practice of requiring each justice to shake hands with the other justices before hearing arguments or meeting in conference. He hoped that this custom, which has endured to the present, would minimize personal rifts among the justices.

Fuller also skillfully managed the Supreme Court's business. He expedited the handling of cases and presided with dignity over public sessions and oral arguments. Fuller's easy manners and genial temperament served him well in managing judicial conferences. He softened differences among the justices and used humor to dispel tension.

As chief justice, Fuller was responsible for assigning the preparation of opinions when he was in the majority. Early in his tenure Fuller kept some of the major opinions, such as Pollock v. Farmers' Loan & Trust Co. (1895), for himself. Thereafter, he generally assigned significant cases to others, a policy that reflected Fuller's self-effacing nature and his desire to promote judicial harmony. There is no evidence that Fuller used assignments to reward or punish colleagues for their views. An indefatigable worker, Fuller shouldered far more than his share of opinions for the Court, choosing the unglamorous opinions dealing with jurisdictional and procedural matters or commercial transactions. Like many of his colleagues, Fuller's prose style was verbose and diffuse. He wrote only a handful of dissenting opinions, usually in cases where Fuller sought to protect state autonomy from federal encroachment.

When Fuller became chief, the Court was laboring under an antiquated federal court structure and a staggering workload. Fuller helped to secure passage of the 1891 Evarts Act, which established the modern circuit courts of appeals system. In so doing, he demonstrated effective political skills and became the first chief justice to lobby Congress for legislation to reform the federal judicial system. Fuller also ably discharged a variety of extrajudicial duties and twice served as a member of arbitration panels dealing with international disputes.

Fuller led the Supreme Court during an era of sweeping social and economic transformation. The growth of large-scale corporate enterprise, rapid urbanization, and the emergence of a national market gave rise to vexing questions for the Court. If Fuller did not have a systematic judicial philosophy when he became chief, he was markedly influenced by the Jacksonian political legacy with its insistence on limited government, preservation of states' rights, and opposition to paternalism. Fuller's success in the practice of law reinforced his acceptance of such principles. The key to understanding Fuller's judicial outlook is his persistent attachment to Jacksonian principles. He exemplifies the link between Jacksonian democracy and the emergence of laissez-faire constitutionalism in the late nineteenth century.

Faith in state autonomy, dedication to the rights of property owners, and attachment to free trade among the states formed the cornerstone of Fuller's constitutional thought. He was, therefore, prepared to read national power broadly to protect economic rights under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the dormant commerce power. Still, Fuller was willing to allow the states wide latitude in shaping social policy with respect to race relations, criminal justice, and public morals.

His reverence for private property was a crucial ingredient of his jurisprudence. Like many nineteenth-century Americans, Fuller regarded the right to acquire, possess, use, and transfer property as among the most important individual liberties. Freedom was defined largely in economic terms. He was convinced that the Constitution and Bill of Rights erected barriers against majoritarian rule to protect economic liberty. Moreover, he believed that private property and other types of individual liberty were inseparable. Respect for property rights, therefore, safeguarded individuals by limiting the reach of legitimate government authority. Under his leadership, the Court sought to protect private property as a personal right. Anchoring this commitment to property ownership was Fuller's awareness of the vital role of investment capital in the economic transformation of the United States. He was eager to safeguard capital formation and to facilitate the development of a national market.

The chief issues before the Court during Fuller's tenure concerned the rights of property owners and the extent to which Congress or the states could control economic activity. Throughout the nineteenth century the justices had defended property and contractual rights from legislative infringement. But Fuller's appointment as chief justice marked a dramatic shift in the formulation of constitutional doctrine. The Fuller Court took an activist role in protecting the rights of property owners, striking down federal and state economic legislation. In so doing, Fuller had no trouble supporting a host of bold constitutional innovations. For example, the Court adopted a substantive interpretation of the due process clause in Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway Co. v. Minnesota (1890), fashioned the novel liberty of contract doctrine in Allgeyer v. Louisiana (1897), and placed constitutional limits on rate regulation in Smyth v. Ames (1898). Fuller provided the fifth vote in Lochner v. New York (1905), in which the Court struck down as an interference with the liberty of contract a state law regulating the hours of labor in bakeries. The rationale of Lochner made the Court the overseer of state regulatory laws.

Likewise, Fuller favored an expansive use of injunctions by federal courts to secure effectively property rights. He joined his associates in upholding a groundbreaking injunction against interference by strikers with interstate commerce in In re Debs (1895) and in affirming the issuance of injunctions to prevent state officials from enforcing unconstitutional laws in Ex parte Young (1908). In another important step, in Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Company v. Chicago (1897), the Court held that the just compensation requirement of the Fifth Amendment was an essential element of due process as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Just compensation became, in effect, the first provision of the Bill of Rights to be applied to the states. This decision set the stage for the gradual extension of other provisions of the Bill of Rights in the twentieth century. In short, a profound commitment to property and private economic ordering gave a distinct cast to the jurisprudence of the Fuller years.

Yet Fuller was no doctrinaire adherent to laissez-faire philosophy. He frequently invoked the state police power and sustained legislation that he perceived as protecting the health, safety, and morals of the public. For example, Fuller supported decisions that sustained state laws limiting the hours of employment in mines, mandating payment of wages in cash, and imposing licensure requirements on certain businesses. In Muller v. Oregon (1908), Fuller agreed that a state could restrict the working hours for women in factories and laundries. Despite its reputation as a conservative economic bastion, the Court under Fuller validated more regulatory legislation than it overturned. In practice, the liberty of contract doctrine was employed sparingly.

Fuller was well aware of the political dimension to constitutional adjudication. In sensitive areas such as race relations and public morals, Fuller and his associates were disinclined to challenge popular attitudes. Even in the sharply contested economic terrain, where Populists and Progressives assailed some of his rulings, Fuller was usually in harmony with the dominant currents of political thought. Indeed, there was a forward-looking dimension to Fuller's handling of economic issues. He identified with burgeoning industrial capitalism, and under his direction the Court was more receptive to the new realities of American economic life than many other sectors of the polity.

Overshadowed by highly visible justices such as Stephen J. Field and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Fuller never gained intellectual ascendancy over his colleagues. Yet he was adept at massing the Court behind zealous defense of the rights of property owners. He exercised considerable leadership through informal consensus building.

Fuller wrote relatively few of the leading constitutional decisions handed down during his tenure. Perhaps his most famous opinions were written in connection with Pollock, in which Fuller, speaking for a majority of five, invalidated the 1894 income tax legislation. Distinguishing earlier authority that upheld the Civil War income tax, he ruled that an income levy was a direct tax, which, under the Constitution, had to be apportioned among the states according to population. Fuller was motivated in part to protect accumulated capital and to preserve the existing balance in state-federal relations. He instinctively realized that an income tax would expand federal revenue and power as well as portend further moves to reallocate wealth. Although Populists fiercely denounced the Pollock decision, evidence shows that the outcome was in line with public sentiment. Nor it is convincing to portray Fuller as a champion of the wealthy. He voted to sustain both state and federal inheritance taxes.

Fuller's handling of the commerce power reflected unresolved tensions between the needs of a national industrial market and the persistence of localism and states' rights sentiments. He consistently championed free trade among the states and joined numerous decisions holding that state regulations unreasonably burdened interstate commerce. At the same time, he was reluctant to recognize broad congressional authority to regulate commerce.

In United States v. E. C. Knight Co. (1895), the first case under the Sherman Antitrust Act to reach the Supreme Court, the justices accepted the constitutionality of the measure but restricted congressional power to prevent manufacturing monopolies. Speaking for a majority of eight justices, Fuller followed the established view that manufacturing was local in nature and subject to state control. He drew a sharp line between manufacturing and the sale of goods in interstate markets. The E. C. Knight decision narrowed the reach of the Sherman Act and hampered antitrust enforcement. Modern eyes can clearly see the economic unreality of Fuller's opinion. His distinction between manufacturing and commerce ignores the basic interdependence of economic activity.

But to Fuller, the issues transcended the threat of business consolidation and went to the very foundation of the constitutional scheme. Consistent with his dedication to a limited federal government, Fuller insisted that large areas of economic life remained outside the authority of Congress. He did not read the commerce clause as a comprehensive grant of power because such a step would upset the federal system and leave the states with little economic activity to control. If Fuller took a narrow view of congressional power, he nevertheless voted to apply the Sherman Act in several cases. Moreover, in Swift & Company v. United States (1905), Fuller supported the stream of commerce doctrine that extended the federal commerce power to local enterprises that were an integral part of interstate transactions. Despite this development, the line Fuller drew between manufacturing and commerce in E. C. Knight endured until the New Deal and the constitutional revolution of 1937.

Fuller could not consistently marshal a majority behind the principle of limited government. For example, in Champion v. Ames (1903), the justices, 5–4, construed congressional commerce authority broadly to uphold legislation suppressing the interstate transportation of lottery tickets. In perhaps his best-known dissenting opinion, Fuller pointed out that Congress was, in effect, seeking to exercise a police power to regulate public morals. He argued that this goal was inconsistent with the intent of the framers and threatened to upset the constitutional balance between the national and state governments.

One of Fuller's most far-reaching opinions came in Loewe v. Lawlor (1908). At issue was a private damage suit under the Sherman Act against union officials for instituting a secondary boycott against the plaintiff employer. Speaking for a unanimous court, Fuller maintained that the Sherman Act prohibited any combination that obstructed the free flow of commerce. Accordingly, the law applied to union activities. Although controversial with labor unions, which feared large damage suits, Fuller followed the prevailing view that the Sherman Act reached all combinations that restrained trade.

Despite his preoccupation with economic issues, Fuller also made contributions in other areas of law. He wrote several opinions that helped to define the Supreme Court's original jurisdiction. In Virginia v. West Virginia (1907), Fuller concluded that the Court had jurisdiction over an original action by Virginia seeking to allocate part of its pre—Civil War debt to West Virginia. He occasionally demonstrated concern over civil liberties. He filed an eloquent dissent in Fong Yue Ting v. United States (1893), arguing that the Constitution protected resident Chinese aliens against summary deportation. Again in dissent, Fuller contended in the Insular Cases that the Bill of Rights extended to overseas territories on their acquisition by the United States. He joined the opinion in Twining v. New Jersey (1908), which intimated that some of the personal guarantees in the Bill of Rights might be effective against the states. This opinion paved the way for eventual nationalization of procedural rights for criminal defendants. In addition, Fuller demonstrated sympathy for the plight of injured workers. He regularly voted to restrict application of the so-called fellow servant rule, which protected employers from liability for injury to their workers. In Johnson v. Southern Pacific Co. (1904), Fuller insisted that the Safety Appliance Act should be liberally construed to secure the safety of railroad employees. In United States v. Shipp (1909), he vigorously used the contempt power to punish law officers who connived in the lynching of a black prisoner despite the issuance of a stay pending appeal. This case was the first instance of the Court's instituting a contempt proceeding, and Fuller's ringing condemnation of this incident served to focus national attention on lynching.

Over time, many of Fuller's achievements have been eclipsed. The nation no longer adheres to a constitutional order based on the principles of limited government, states' rights, and respect for private property. Fuller's attempts to cabin congressional tax and regulatory authority ultimately proved futile. Indeed, after a lacerating struggle over the New Deal program, the Supreme Court largely abandoned its long-standing concern with economic rights in 1937. Because much of Fuller's handiwork seems to belong to another era, few scholars would place Fuller among the great justices.

Yet Fuller left his mark on American jurisprudence and has perhaps received inadequate attention. He saw the federal judiciary as an active participant in governance and greatly strengthened its role in American life. Many of the doctrinal innovations associated with his name have continuing vitality. Contrary to popular belief, the Supreme Court has never really abandoned a substantive interpretation of the due process clause; rather, it uses the doctrine as a safeguard for noneconomic rights instead of property interests. Expansive use of federal equity power in the late twentieth century built on precedent from the Fuller era. Indeed, many of the issues that predominated during his tenure—the reach of regulatory authority, the rights of property owners—reappeared during the Rehnquist Court. Renewed scholarly and judicial interest in economic rights suggests enduring recognition that property ownership and individual liberty are linked, and Chief Justice Fuller was a major contributor to the ongoing debate over the place of property in American constitutional law.


The Fuller papers are divided between the Library of Congress and the Chicago Historical Society. The standard, although somewhat outdated, biography is Willard L. King, Melville Weston Fuller: Chief Justice of the United States, 1888–1910 (1950). Fuller's leadership is also explored in Robert J. Steamer, Chief Justice: Leadership and the Supreme Court (1986).

Studies of the Court and its doctrine during the Fuller years include: James W. Ely Jr., The Chief Justiceship of Melville W. Fuller (1995); Loren P. Beth, The Development of the American Constitution, 1877–1917 (1971); David P. Currie, The Constitution in the Supreme Court: The Second Century, 1888–1986 (1990); Arnold Paul, Conservative Crisis and the Rule of Law: Attitudes of Bar and Bench, 1887–1895 (1960); and John F. Semonche, Charting the Future: The Supreme Court Responds to a Changing Society, 1890–1920 (1978).

For studies focusing more on doctrinal issues, see James W. Ely Jr., The Guardian of Every Other Right: A Constitutional History of Property Rights (1992); Herbert Hovenkamp, Enterprise and American Law, 1836–1937 (1991); and Paul Kens, Judicial Power and Reform Politics: The Anatomy of Lochner v. New York (1990).

Noteworthy Opinions

Fong Yue Ting v. United States, 149 U.S. 698 (1893) (Dissent)

United States v. E. C. Knight Co., 156 U.S. 1 (1895)

Pollock v. Farmers' Loan & Trust Co., 157 U.S. 429 (1895)

Champion v. Ames, 188 U.S. 321 (1903) (Dissent)

Johnson v. Southern Pacific Co., 196 U.S. 1 (1904)

Virginia v. West Virginia, 206 U.S. 290 (1907)

Loewe v. Lawlor, 208 U.S. 204 (1908)

United States v. Shipp, 214 U.S. 386 (1909)


Document Citation
Fuller, Melville Weston, in Biographical Encyclopedia of the Supreme Court 207 (Melvin I. Urofsky ed., 2006),
Document ID: bioenc-427-18166-979234
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